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Moravia Second Time Round

by Michael McDonald

Racconti dispersi 1928–1951
by Alberto Moravia; Simone Casini and Francesca Serra, ed.
Bompiani, 2002, 389 pp., Euro 30,000

Alberto Moravia's death in 1990 ended a prolific writing career spanning more than six decades, in which he dominated the Italian intellectual landscape.

Moravia's distinctive protean talent encompassed novels, stories, plays, essays, travel-writing, criticism and journalism. And to each genre he brought his style: a lean, incisive prose alien to the Italian tradition. Moravia's anti-rhetorical manner, his critique of ethical conventions and his refusal to posit a solution to his characters' alienation brought him into frequent conflict: first with the fascists, later with the Church, and finally with the 1960s generation of writers who rejected post-war existentialism in favour of postmodern games-playing. Such was Moravia's narrative mastery, however, that the success of a particular book, whatever its effect on his immediate reputation, seemed to matter less than its place in the whole work - a work destined, as even the Catholic critic Carlo Bo conceded, to define Roman mores in the twentieth century as surely as Balzac's Comedie humaine had defined those of Paris in the nineteenth.

Bompiani, Moravia's publisher, have struggled since the 1980s to make his opere complete available through its Pleiade-like series of "classici bompiani".

Sadly, these labours have not gone smoothly. The first two volumes, Opere 1927-1947 (1986) and Opere 1948-1968 (1989), were neither comprehensive nor well edited: the former inexcusably mangled the novel La romana; the latter inexplicably offered mere selections from some of Moravia's best-known story collections. The fact that neither contained even the most rudimentary critical apparatus was further cause for disappointment. Following Moravia's death, Bompiani decided to commission proper scholarly editions of his work. The improved results were apparent in Viaggi, articoli 1930-1990 (1994). It was four years later, however, that Bompiani made the remarkable decision to start over again. Romanzi e racconti, 1929-1937 (1998) represents Moravia's first four books, notwithstanding that two of the four previously appeared in the Opere 1927-1947.

Why the drastic step? Correcting botched editions seems only part of the reason. As Simone Casini and Francesca Serra explain in their introduction to Racconti dispersi 1928-1951, it was only recently that scholars became aware of the large number of uncollected stories by Moravia buried in library archives. Bompiani published thirty-two of these "lost" stories in 1993. Since then, Casini and Serra have identified an additional sixty-nine stories to make up the present volume. In time, Bompiani will integrate both books into its recast series of Moravia's complete works.

Where do these recovered tales fit into Moravia's oeuvre? Following the schema provided by Casini and Serra, it seems best to assign the stories to four rough categories.

Initially, there are the stories from the 1920s and 30s, when Moravia perfected his skills as a novelist. Moravia intended "Andreina", an account of the suicide of a young woman, to be part of Le ambizioni sbagliate, but recast it as a short story in order to prevent the novel's suppression. In other stories such as "Il ladro curioso", the account of what a burglar sees through the windows of a Roman villa, Moravia distils larger themes about what lies behind the mask of respectability, which were to be more fully worked out in novels such as Gli indifferenti.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Moravia began to write short stories for the popular press. These tales constituted his training for learning how to construct narratives in the first person. As one might expect, these stories lack polish, and it is easy to see why Moravia excluded them from later collections. Some, "Il leone", about a couple who feed their friends to a pet lion, and "Ricordo di Circe", a retelling of how Ulysses' men enjoyed being transformed into swine, remind us of Moravia's debt to Surrealism and how he often was able to level oblique criticism at the Fascist authorities.

Moravia's directness was, in many ways, best suited to the essay form. This may explain why the most affecting pieces here are those that recount his flight from Rome in 1943 and his nine-month stay in the Ciociara. These descriptions - of reading the Bible to peasants ("Il Vangelo in Ciociara"), watching an aerial bombardment ("Il paese più felice del mondo"), or experiencing the nihilism of war ("Due Tedeschi") are alone worth the price of the book.

Finally, there are the post-war stories which introduce the reader to the world of working-class Romans involved in the pursuit of love and money. The action may be minimal: a painter dreams about the perfect woman ("Il pittore Evandro"); the situations commonplace: a man starts a new family following the death of the old ("Il padre di famiglia"); and yet Moravia has managed to imbue these slices of Roman life with remarkable psychological depth.

Commemorations of Moravia's death in Italy last year were melancholy affairs. Many critics found his moralistic engagement with social problems no longer relevant.

Dissenting from these views, the critic Alfonso Berardinelli argued for the continuing relevance of writers who sought to understand and explain the world around them. The best of the stories in Racconti dispersi do exactly that, and Bompiani are to be commended for keeping Alberto Moravia's complete work in print.
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